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Book review: Borderlines by Michela Wrong

Cliché and melodrama mar an otherwise moving debut that brings the landscape of the African continent to life.
The novel is set in a fictional country in the Horn of Africa. Getty Images
The novel is set in a fictional country in the Horn of Africa. Getty Images

Michela Wrong has been writing about Africa for more than 20 years. She came to the subject by accident, relatively early in her career as a foreign correspondent when the news organisation Reuters sent her to cover events in Côte d’Ivoire and Zaire.

Wrong’s experiences in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, prompted her to write the first of her three works of non-fiction devoted to the subject of Africa: In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz (2001), which chronicled the precarious condition of the country as its leadership passed from Mobutu Sese Seko to Laurent Kabila. This arresting book, which was awarded the PEN James Sterne Prize for non-fiction, was followed by I Didn’t Do It for You (2005), which attended to the vicissitudes of Eritrea under British, American, Ethiopian and Italian occupation; and It’s Our Turn to Eat (2009), which told the story of the Kenyan “whistle-blower” and journalist John Githongo, who in 2002 discovered widespread corruption in the government of Mwai Kibaki.

To these titles Wrong has now added a novel, also concerned with Africa. Borderlines, her first work of fiction, has at its heart a territory dispute between the countries Darrar and North Darrar. We are introduced to this story through the figure of Paula Shackleton, a British national working in America as a corporate lawyer, who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her great love, Jake Wentworth. Now, in 2004 and after Jake’s death, she feels she has been living an etiolated existence, a “botched, interrupted, pointless demi-life”.

It is in this condition that she encounters Winston Peabody, also a lawyer. Winston has made a good living advising US corporations on foreign investments; yet he is also a celebrity in the world of human rights, an individual with a natural affinity for the downtrodden, the weak, the vulnerable (“Underdogs, that’s my thing. Takes one to know one.”). Winston and Paula are both staying at the Langham hotel, Chicago, to conduct business; and when Winston notices Paula one day at breakfast, he invites her to attend a talk he is giving on human rights, and later offers her a job: would she like to help him represent the government of North Darrar, a country that is negotiating its borderlines at The Hague, and effectively attempting to prove its right to exist?

Paula accepts the offer and finds herself living in North Darrar. We then follow her as she conducts interviews at refugee camps, forges new friendships and deals with old memories.

Much of this feels laboured and slow. For although Borderlines features many bursts of adept storytelling, full of purpose and momentum, they are prevented from gathering real cumulative force by Paula’s long and tawdry ruminations on her new life, and by the equally tawdry voice in which Wrong has her speak. It is a peculiar combination of naff demotic (“Someone, it was clear, had blabbed”; “A girl needs a pillow, no?”; “I was arriving late to the party”); pallid cliché (“Abraham’s upper lip was beaded with sweat”); and a discordance of register that is often so jarring as to be funny: “Green Eyes was playing it cool, so I would match him for insouciance.”

These shortcomings become more damaging as the novel gathers in pace, darkens in atmosphere and Paula moves towards a decision that endangers both her career and her liberty. In these sections of the book, Wrong’s writing can feel close to melodrama (“Think! Where could I stow the documents? Down the drain? How about the cistern, Al Pacino style?”), draining the narrative of impetus and traction.

Which is a pity, for Wrong is not without talent. She writes movingly about all kinds of dispossession and displacement; and it is to her credit that she makes the landscape of North Darrar feel vivid and particular, rather than generically “African”.

Borderlines might not always feel like a work of fully realised fiction. But at its best, it brings its territory to life in a way that is indisputably its own.

This book is available on Amazon.

Matthew Adams is a London-­based reviewer who writes for the TLS, the Spectator and the Literary Review.


Updated: August 13, 2015 04:00 AM



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